Czechs tighten lockdown amid virus surge

Robert Muller and Jason HovetAAP
Czechia will introduce strict new restrictions limiting people's movement.
Camera IconCzechia will introduce strict new restrictions limiting people's movement.

Czechia has announced strict new restrictions limiting people's movement over the next three weeks and tightening shop and school closures to slow spread of COVID-19 infections.

The country of 10.7 million, in which around one in 10 have been infected in the past year, has the highest per capita case rate in the world over the past week and 10 times higher than Germany.

Its death toll has risen to 20,000 from about 600 in five months.

The country is facing a renewed surge in infections, accelerated by the British variant.

The number of patients in serious condition is a record. Some hospitals have been forced to transfer patients hundreds of kilometres away due to capacity.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis said on Friday he wanted to avoid scenes from Bergamo in northern Italy, which was Europe's epicentre at the outset of the pandemic and whose overwhelmed hospitals shocked the world.

"I understand it is a great burden for everyone, we are not happy about it. But if we don't do (anything), the whole world will see Bergamo" in the Czech Republic, Babis said.

The new restrictions, effective from Monday, will limit people's movement only to home districts, except for essential trips.

The government also reduced the list of essential shops, closing, for example, stationery stores or those selling children's shoes and clothing.

It adds to non-essential retail shops, restaurants, most services, gyms and entertainment venues that have been almost continuously closed since October.

Pre-schools will shut and first- and second-graders will shift to online schooling like other students.

Babis, a billionaire before entering politics, has seen his popularity hit by the pandemic and a slow vaccine rollout but has urged people to limit contact amid lockdown fatigue.

The country managed relatively well compared to some in Europe early in the pandemic, when city streets were largely deserted amid restrictions. Some factories idled, causing a massive economic hit.

Industry was not touched in these measures although firms will need to test workers and provide masks.

Health Minister Jan Blatny said daily infections would rise above highs of 18,000 in the coming weeks and not fall without tighter measures.

The country reported 14,000 new cases on Thursday.

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